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Falling off a Himalayan Cliff

2008 Hell Trips Contest Winner 2nd Place – India is the last place you want to be when you’re in trouble.

By the time they’ve finished cleaning the blood from my face, the adrenaline’s nearly worn off. The numbing rush of endorphines that’s carried me through the last couple of hours is being replaced by the creeping realisation that I’m lying at the bottom of a ravine in North India, a mess of shattered bone and torn skin, with no obvious means of getting out again.

A policeman’s standing over me, stroking his moustache with that air of smug megalomania policemen have the world over.

He’s Not Happy either.

Until 30 minutes ago his day had been going extraordinarily well. It’s not often a Himachal cop gets the opportunity to arrest a white traveler for murder. With no witnesses to support her claims of innocence, a hefty wad of bribe money had seemed so close he could almost taste it. And now his dreams of fucking off to early retirement in Goa with a tribe of teenage Nepali concubines are all about to be shattered, simply because I have the audacity not to be dead.

This is his last chance to persuade me, if not to die, at least to give him enough evidence to support attempted murder charges.

Unfortunately for him, that’s my best friend he’s got in custody.

“So. Who pushed you?”

“Nobody. I fell.”

“How can you fall off a cliff by accident?”

It’s a good question – even I don’t quite know. I guess one or two (or three or four) chillums might’ve had something to do with it. In a pleasantly hazy state of ganja-induced nature-worship, I’d been scrambling along one wall of the ravine, my friend Jo behind me. The next I remember is the sickening feeling of one foot slipping out from under me, glimpses of sky alternating with rock faces as my body performed a full somersault in the air, then the earth coming up to meet me with an ominous crunch about eight metres down.

Ok, not one of my smartest moments. I blame God/Shiva/whoever for making the best ganja grow in the mountains. That’s just asking for trouble.

“I slipped,” I tell the cop.

Meanwhile, among the small group of people who’ve climbed down to help, conversations are being conducted in urgent whispers, fingers pointed at the cliffs and my broken thigh, heads shaken.

A local guy kneels by my side, trying to distract me from the grotesquely drooping chunk of meat that was once my leg.

“Don’t worry,” he tells me, “you’re not the first to fall here. Three others fell already this year.”

“Fuck, were they ok?”

“No,” he says, looking surprised that I’d ask such a ridiculous question. “No, they died.” As an afterthought: “that’s why we’re not sure how to get you out. We didn’t have to worry about hurting the others.”

Somehow, I don’t feel very comforted.

Pissed-Off-Cop has a plan. He proceeds to explain it to me – complete with actions, lest I fail to grasp its full complexity.

“This man” (he indicates a rather elderly villager, who looks up, alarmed) “will bend down” (bends knees). “You get on his back,” (mimes jumping onto the old man’s back) “and he’ll carry you up the cliff!”

Even sarcasm fails me. I can think of nothing to say that could possibly make this plan sound stupider than it already does.

Luckily, the locals seem well practised in dealing with their esteemed police force. They completely ignore him and devise their own plan.

“Helicopter not possible. Cliffs too close, too high. We need blow-up stretcher and ropes. We’ll pull you up. Wait.”

I wait another three hours. I’m shaking with cold in the damp shadow of the cliffs and at every move, jagged bone tears into the muscle of my thigh. Convulsing with pain, I let my eyes roll back. Hands slap my face, panicked voices dragging me from darkness.

At last, the inflatable stretcher arrives and is lowered down. I’m lifted onto it and strapped in. Pissed-Off-Cop struts around with his chest thrust out, barking characteristically stupid instructions, which everyone calmly ignores. The ropes tighten around me and, centimetre-by-centimetre, I’m jerked upwards. At every jerk, my broken thigh drags against the cliff and I cry out in pain.

Until finally, I reach the top.

The gathered crowd cheers. As a long-bearded character who looks suspiciously like Rasputin shoots morphine into my arm, I’m reunited with Jo, who tells me her story.

The minute she saw me fall she turned and sprinted back to the village, where she burst into Pappu’s, our favourite café, screaming for help. Fighting off Pappu’s wife’s attempts to force-feed her a calming cup of chai, she gasped out what had happened.

Unfortunately, the backpackers of Himachal Pradesh aren’t exactly renowned for their energy and efficiency. Great as chillum-buddies, but when it comes to speedy mountain rescues you’d be better off asking help from the local goats. Pappu’s regulars, most of whom had been there all day, stared back at her with helpless, bloodshot eyes.

Only one seemed capable of standing up, a ginger-dreadlocked Aussie. He staggered forward and grasped her hands.

“Come… to the temple…”

“What?? No time for that, she fell off a fucking cliff!”

“We’ll pray for her…”

“PRAY?? But we need to… oh for fuck’s sake.”

Leaving him to fall to his knees, eyes piously closed, Jo turned pleading eyes on Pappu. Our Pappu! Provider of chai, maker of thali! Surely if anyone could help, he could.

Pappu didn’t fail us. He ran back to the ravine with Jo, gathering everyone he could think of to help. The police turned up an hour later, quickly took stock of the situation, and arrested Jo.

That left the ordinary villagers to climb down, discover I was alive, and organise my rescue. With the eternal ingenuity of the Indian people, they’d contacted a paragliding team 60km away, borrowed the inflatable stretcher and by sheer weight of numbers, dragged me to safety.

I’m overcome by gratitude. And morphine. As my rescuers carry me to the road I wave serenely up at them, grinning in a cross-eyed sort of way and humming tunelessly to myself.

When we reach the waiting ambulance, it’s clear the whole crowd intends to come too. There’s not enough space for all of them and sharp words start to be exchanged, until the driver resolves the situation by agreeing to drive at walking pace so everyone else can keep up.

I think the concept of an ambulance has been slightly lost on the Indians.

Near the hospital we pass a religious procession, half of which promptly decides that our group looks much more interesting and peels off to follow us instead. We arrive accompanied by about 50 people, dressed in elaborate costumes, carrying massive images of the gods, and singing at the top of their lungs.

For the next few days, my ward is a carnival of bizarre visitors. Pappu provides an ever-running supply of chai, while my Israeli friends haggle with the pharmacy for my medication, a motley gang of hippies keep up a constant serenade on acoustic guitars, and the ginger-dreadlocked Aussie performs reikki on my leg (to no noticeable effect, but I appreciate the effort). Ombaba, a crippled artist from Rajastan, walks in on his hands to assure me that life without legs isn’t so bad, and the local saddhu argues relentlessly with the doctors over the obvious necessity of smoking chillum in the ward. Apart from the unable-to-move-constant-pain thing, I almost enjoy myself.

But X-rays show that fixing my thigh is going to be a trickier procedure than just banging some plaster on and trusting to Shiva. It’s an operation that has to be done in Delhi. Unable to afford an ambulance, I order a taxi.

In preparation for the 16-hour journey over winding, potholed mountain roads, my leg is put in a ‘travel splint’. This involves tying large weights to my foot and viciously twisting my broken thigh. I grip Jo’s hand, eyes screwed shut, screaming in agony. Then I’m wrestled into the taxi through the boot, and our journey begins.

At this point, all memory dies.

I’m suffering from ‘fat embolism’. This occurs when excessive trauma to a break site allows particles of fat to enter the bloodstream and migrate to the lungs, causing respiratory failure and ‘agitated delirium’. Allegedly, I spend the following days cracking bad jokes, laughing manically, and screaming abuse at anyone who tries to put oxygen tubes up my nose.

Although, as Jo points out, this isn’t wildly different to how I act normally.

I’m concious of nothing for several days.

When I regain lucidity I’m lying in bed, smothered by the sticky monsoon heat of Delhi. I have a piece of metal inserted from my hip to my knee, a face full of stitches and a head spinning with painkillers. But I’m alive. It’s taken the courage and resourcefulness of countless people to get me here, and I treasure every sweaty, aching, beautiful second of it.

Read more Hell Trips shortlisted stories

Cat Rainsford